Steve Jobs has died.
Many people have claimed that he changed the world, and many people have given accounts of his achievements. Charlie Stross points out that Jobs championed a number of ideas which ultimately made computing accessible to the masses – from graphical user interfaces, to smartphones and multi-touch interfaces. His passion for beautiful, flawless design made computing attractive too. For that, he deserves thanks.
There was, however, also a darker side to Steve Jobs’ impact on the world of computing. His flawless design led to computers becoming shiny black boxes which were not to be opened or played with. His drive for control – over hardware, software and content – led to users losing control of their own devices.
We live in a world where most of us haven’t got the faintest idea how the gadgets we rely on so heavily work, and where said gadgets are explicitly designed to discourage us from finding out. Apple’s approach to design also poses significant sustainability issues: if your gadget breaks, you cannot repair it. Apple may be able to, but often this comes with a price tag so large that you might as well buy the newer, shinier model instead. There is always a newer, shinier model.
When it comes to content, Apple’s control is absolute. There is a reason your iPod won’t talk to your computer without the intermediary of iTunes, and it’s that Apple likes to keep tabs on the content you consume. They also decide who can and can’t sell what through the App Store. What is perhaps worst is that Apple has conditioned an entire generation of users to believe that this is perfectly acceptable, even normal.
In his Commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, Jobs said that death was the “single best invention of life”.
It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But some day not too long from now you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.
We have an opportunity now. Jobs’ legacy was to make computing attractive and accessible to anyone and everyone, regardless of their level of technical ability; but he also made many of us slaves to our technology, users who are not in control and do not understand what the technology does or how. Our opportunity is to build upon the good bits of Steve Jobs’ legacy – the universality and accessibility of computing – while rejecting the dogma and casting off the mindset of the shiny, closed, black box.
In honour of Steve Jobs, here’s what I think we should do. Go find an old computer – you almost certainly have one lying around, or can get one from a friend. Find that old computer and open it up. Find out what’s inside. Take it apart. Put it back together. Install Ubuntu or Debian, or any other flavour of a free, open operating system you like. Learn to use it. Uninstall iTunes. Install Rockbox on your iPod instead. Go read up about cookies and how they can be used to invade your privacy. Learn how to control what information you pass on to whom. Learn to control your devices.
Goodbye Steve, and thank you. Now it is time for us to move on.